Imagine that: The life-changing power of creative intelligence


“Don’t dream, do,” some say. But what if the very thing that fuels the ability to do is the capacity to dream?

Scott Barry Kaufman, psychologist and scientific director of the Imagination Institute, and Rebecca Gotlieb, Erik Jahner, and Mary Helen Immordino-Yang are examining that exact question in an article on creative intelligence to be published in this year. The co-authors show how neuroscience and cognitive psychology are turning many of our assumptions about creativity upside down.

An additional “intelligence”

We are all familiar with intellectual intelligence, or IQ. Emotional intelligence, or EQ, the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others, has, in the last 20 years (in large part because of the ground-breaking work of Yale president Peter Salovey) been embraced as equally important. Creative intelligence, or CQ, is connected to both IQ and EQ but has to do specifically with the ability to generate, analyze, and imagine. These are not necessarily innate skills, but skills that can be developed by anyone. 

As a guest of Yale Well, a university initiative to improve the quality of life for our students, Scott Barry Kaufman came to Yale last spring to talk with students, faculty, and administrators about creative intelligence. Scott’s visit inspired me to think more about the work he and his colleagues are doing and how developing creativity in students can positively impact their lives and society. I wondered, as workplace needs and expectations change, and innovation, empathy, and problem-solving are increasingly valued, will our students who have highly developed creative intelligence do better than others in both work and life? Kaufman and his colleagues suggest yes.

In “How Social-Emotional Imagination Facilitates Deep Learning and Creativity in the Classroom,” Kaufman writes that “ developing creativity in students is not a luxury. Technology experts project that about 47% of current jobs in the United States will become obsolete because of computers within the next decade or two, and the jobs that will remain are those that require creative intelligence.”

Creative Intelligence and Student Development

My leadership focus is on higher education, but I am acutely aware that the development of the basic skills our college students need to succeed in higher education and beyond begins early and extends far beyond traditional academic achievement.

Many classroom teachers, burdened with requirements tied to test results, often do not have the opportunity to actively cultivate “social-emotional imagination”-which the authors define as the ability to “creatively conjure alternative perspectives, emotional feelings, courses of action, and outcomes for oneself and others in the short- and long-term future.” This ability to think, or dream, about alternatives leads to the development of creative intelligence. 

This lack of focus on what some may dismiss as “soft skills” puts us at risk of multiple lost opportunities—and raises interesting questions in education and career development. Without this capacity, where will we find the problem-solvers, the risk-takers, the innovators?

Kaufman et al. look at the brain science behind social-emotional intelligence, some of which overturns traditional thinking. For instance, students are sometimes told to stop “daydreaming” and focus. Yet, according to recent research the authors cite, the brain state that supports long-term goal attainment is the same that spurs creativity. In other words, to learn, a dogged focus on tasks must be balanced with reflection and even daydreaming.

Kaufman and his co-authors examine the concept of the “default mode network” (DMN), brain areas that appear to be activated when the brain is in a resting state, and not during times of outward productivity.

The DMN is “critical to the healthy development of a variety of skills that facilitate deep learning, including cognitive control, self-regulation, emotion regulation, memory suppression, mindfulness, and meta-awareness,” the authors claim. “DMN connectivity is even positively correlated with IQ scores.”

It’s also vital to imagining steps in a process and projecting future outcomes—including envisioning future selves. The implications for career development are obvious: To design who we want to be, we should tap into the DMN and a state of rest and reflection.

Internal reflection and day dreaming – a good use of time?

Through the skill of “constructive internal reflection,” the authors assert, an individual may build a complex representation of the self, envision possible futures, or engage in moral reasoning. Yet overbooked schedules and too much social media can interfere with the brain’s performance of these essential functions.

This area of concern is currently being researched, but initial data indicates constructive internal reflection can boost high-stakes exam scores. Does it follow that we’d benefit from more down time?

Researchers are also exploring the value of “positive constructive daydreaming” and productive mind wandering,” which, counter intuitively, may help people make fewer errors when performing a task.

And we know well that empathy is the foundation of successful social relationships and community. It may be that without creative intelligence and envisioning capacity, empathy can’t take root and grow. The consequences: One might be unable to function successfully in our multicultural world. Or be unable to imagine—and invent—an innovation that could help others and galvanize our national economy.

Is creative intelligence a key component to resiliency?

We admire and praise students who are resilient, who can manage difficult life situations and despite sometimes significant challenges, survive and succeed.

But when we praise resiliency and grit, are we overlooking the importance of creative intelligence? That is, when we identify a student’s ability to delay gratification and persist in a tough pursuit as evidence of maturity and confidence, where do those skills come from, if not from the ability to imagine herself in a future when she’ll be able to realize her visions?

I’m the last person to ignore the importance of context and environment to achievement. I know how hard it is for students from some backgrounds to get ahead, whether these are city neighborhoods where systematic injustice keeps people in poverty, or rural areas where academic achievement is seen as a waste of time.

How are some students able to “get out”? And beyond this, how are they able to “go back,” bringing the benefits of their experience to their homes and families? Again, it looks like creative intelligence is the key.

As educators, we should embrace the development of creative intelligence at every stage of learning. Reflection, daydreaming, and visioning can help students increase resiliency and achieve audacious goals. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, it may be because they dreamt of things that never were, and asked, “Why not?”